Two decades later, Phil Masinga had not forgotten the advice Howard Wilkinson gave him on his first day at Leeds United, in the summer of 1994. “He told me not be scared of anyone,” recalled Masinga when we spoke for the last time at the end of 2015. “Howard said I was as good as everyone else and told me just to do my best because I was capable of being a top player. Gordon Strachan was very friendly and tried hard to make us feel comfortable. He’s the one who helped me open a bank account.”
Born and raised in the township of Khuma, outside Klerksdorp in South Africa’s remote North West Province, Masinga – whose death from cancer at the age of 49 was announced over the weekend – starred as a striker for Jomo Cosmos and Mamelodi Sundowns in his homeland before being brought to Elland Road after turning down Sir Bobby Robson’s overtures at Sporting Lisbon. As part of the £250,000 deal, defender Lucas Radebe also sign for Leeds, although “Chippa” arrived three weeks before his compatriot “Rhoo” and settled in far quicker than the man who went on to become one of the club’s greatest icons.
“We weren’t used to the weather and we struggled a little bit – we kept each other warm at times,” Radebe told the BBC this week. “Phil was a big hit with the team and the players. I looked up to him and I think he inspired me the most. It was absolutely great the way he adapted to the situation.”
Having made his international debut in Bafana Bafana’s historic inaugural match in 1992, Masinga became the first black South African player to play in the Premier League, a few months after Nelson Mandela had been elected president. He scored two hat-tricks in pre-season and then found the net just three minutes into the 3-2 defeat to Chelsea on 27 August 1994. Yet Radebe’s debut against Sheffield Wednesday a few weeks later – he was mysteriously deployed on the left-wing by Wilkinson – was not the first time two South Africans had featured in the same Leeds side. Gerry Francis and Albert Johannesson were selected by Don Revie for the fixture against Stoke in April 1961, with Johannesson going to become the first black player to feature in an FA Cup final four years later.
Johannesson’s body was discovered in a rundown flat in Leeds almost a week after had died in September 1995 – Radebe attended the funeral, but Masinga was unable to because he was in Wilkinson’s squad for the next match. “I was a little bit sad because of the circumstances of his death,” he remembered. “I wish that I could have met him before he died because I never had an opportunity to shake hands with him.”
The signing of the Ghana striker Tony Yeboah a few days after Masinga had scored a memorable hat-trick in extra-time against Walsall in the FA Cup proved to be the beginning of the end for his Leeds career. While Radebe went on to establish himself as captain under George Graham, his friend was sold to the Swiss side St Gallen in 1996 having made 31 appearances for the Yorkshire club. Masinga moved to Italy and enjoyed successful spells with Salernitana and Bari, for whom he scored more than 30 goals in four Serie A seasons, before scoring the goal against the Republic of Congo that took South Africa to their first World Cup finals. But he was relentlessly booed by home supporters in Bafana Bafana’s next match after missing some golden chances and later admitted he had come close to quitting international football ahead of the tournament in France. “It was tough, it was killing me,” he said. “I couldn’t even buy newspapers anymore because I didn’t want to see what they would be writing about me.”
Masinga saw his hopes of a reunion with Strachan at Coventry ended when his work permit application was rejected in 2001 and he retired due to a knee injury after a short spell in the United Arab Emirates, returning to South Africa to coach at former club Cosmos. Within five years, he was back at his mother’s house in Khuma having been forced to sell all of his memorabilia, including his 1996 Africa Cup of Nations winners’ medal. “I made some very bad investments because of a lack of financial knowledge,” admitted Masinga. “Some people are fortunate to get financial skills through studies or careers. I had to acquire mine through the ‘university of life’.”
Having left at 14, Masinga went back to school and studied management science at Nelson Mandela Bay university. But despite hoping to one day return to top-level football as an administrator, Masinga was admitted to Tshepong hospital in Klerksdorp in November before being diagnosed with cancer.
“Very sad news for South African football, we lost a true football legend in Phil ‘Chippa’ Masinga,” wrote Steven Pienaar on Twitter. “He paved the way for all South African footballers in the UK. That goal at FNB Stadium that took us to our 1st World Cup will always be on my mind.”